Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Dilemmas of a 'Global' Core: Reading the Bhagavad-Gita with First-Year Students (part 3 of 3)

By Nathan Rein

This leads me back to the “dilemma” in my title. To reiterate: when we ask our students to grapple with difficult texts like the Gita, particularly (though not exclusively) when we associate them with non-Western origins, should we foreground their strangeness, or do we build familiarity? In the little story I’ve told here, the Miller translation leans toward familiarity, and the Patton translation toward strangeness. Each has its obvious advantages and disadvantages. The Miller translation is resonant, sonorous, relatively easy to grasp, and intuitively appealing – but, by all accounts, it’s less faithful to the original. The Patton translation is conceptually precise and carefully documented, but it’s also hard to read. It contains many more proper names and untranslated Sanskrit terms, and it often avoids recognizably “spiritual” language. It’s not difficult to recognize in Miller a loosely Protestantized version of Upanishadic mysticism, an emphasis on transcending externals and overcoming temptations for the sake of attaining inner peace – the development of a sort of universal gnosis – and a corresponding deemphasizing of the particularly Indian elements of the text. Patton eschews these tendencies, but at the cost of accessibility and aesthetic power.

Here I'll offer one further illustration of this difference. In a conceptually difficult passage, Miller’s language – though far from simple – sticks close to literary English convention:

 A. Eternal and supreme is the infinite spirit; its inner self is called inherent being; its creative force, known as action, is the source of creatures’ existence. (p. 79, 8.3)

Patton, by comparison, is dense and technical. Even the syntax seems contorted.

 B. Brahman is the highest imperishable; the highest self is said to be one’s own nature, giving rise to all states of being; action is understood as “sending forth.” (p. 94, 8.3)

Here, again, there is a recognizably “spiritual” quality to Miller’s diction, which I can’t help but think Patton is self-consciously avoiding. “Eternal and supreme” is a recognizably theological way to describe a god; “the highest imperishable” sounds like something you might find among the canned goods in your grandparents’ fallout shelter. The phrase “action is understood as ‘sending forth’,” again, verges on incomprehensibility, whereas “the source of creatures’ existence” is relatively straightforward.

The examples could be multiplied. Miller offers us something that we can grasp with relative ease, something that fits with our own preexisting notions of what a religion – and specifically an Eastern, highly “spiritual” religion – should look like, where Patton challenges us with diction and syntax that make clear the extent of the problem, reminding us of how little we really know about the Gita’s intellectual world.

So what do we make of this? Pedagogically, the obvious “right” choice here is to foreground neither strangeness nor familiarity but rather to create an environment where a dialogic interplay of strangeness and familiarity can form the ground of learning and genuine engagement. On the other hand, though, we had to pick one of these two translations to use. I have to confess that I don’t have a resolution to offer here. It is my hope, at least, that a clearer awareness of these inescapable choices can help inform my own teaching as I return to the Gita in the fall of 2016.


Miller, Barbara Stoler, tr. and ed. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Bantam Books, 2004.

Patton, Laurie L., tr. and ed. The Bhagavad Gita. London; New York: Penguin, 2008.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Dilemmas of a 'Global' Core: Reading the Bhagavad-Gita with First-Year Students (part 2 of 3)

By Nathan Rein

The two quotations I began with, as I noted, are drawn from two different translations of the Gita. Which one is better for freshmen? I think it depends on whether you want to emphasize strangeness or build familiarity, and for the remaining time I want to illustrate this tension a bit more concretely. Recently, I was involved in a small, but significant controversy on our campus, which I think exemplifies this dilemma of choosing between comfort and discomfort in our approach to these challenging texts. Here, in very condensed form, is the story. My institution's core course, the “Common Intellectual Experience” or CIE, begins with a Great Books-style sequence in the fall semester. As I’ve noted, most of the texts we read in the fall are drawn from the Western canon, but we devote three weeks to the Bhagavad-Gita and Mencius. From the time of the incorporation of the Bhagavad-Gita into the CIE syllabus up until two years ago, we have always used the Miller translation, which is the first of the two I quoted from initially. Since 2012, though, we’ve been using the newer, more scholarly, and slightly more expensive Patton translation, which was the source of that second quotation. I serve on the committee of four that administers the CIE, and part of the job that I’m responsible for is running the process by which the syllabus and reading list are updated from one year to the next. We follow a formal procedure, including a proposal followed by a faculty vote, for cutting texts, introducing new texts, or changing other fundamental features of the course, such as the writing requirements. On the other hand, the CIE committee typically institutes more minor changes, such as switching out one edition of a text for another, or making minor shifts in timing, without this voting process.

This raises an interesting question: in such a setting, is a move from one translation to another a major change that requires a vote, or a minor change? We initially chose to treat the change as minor. We moved to the Patton translation on the urging of a single faculty member, one of two on our staff who teach Asian studies, without a proposal or a vote.

But this choice proved problematic. Our CIE instructors come from all across the campus, including the natural sciences, and for many of them, leading discussions on Plato or the Bhagavad-Gita is a daunting prospect. After two years with Patton, many were fed up; they wanted to go back to the Miller translation, which was familiar and easier to work with. As a sort of procedural compromise, I didn’t require anyone to make a formal proposal for the translation change, but I did include a question about the translations on our annual syllabus vote. The overwhelming majority of faculty preferred to go back to Miller, and so it was decided.

It will probably not surprise you to hear that my colleague, the one who had originally pushed for using the newer, more scholarly translation, was not pleased with this outcome. He was scathingly critical of the Miller translation, to the point of suggesting that it was irresponsible to expose our students to it. On his view, omitting the Gita from the syllabus would be preferable to using this translation. Besides being inaccurate in many particulars, he said, Miller was also deeply Orientalist in character. Her translation choices supported a range of outmoded stereotypes about the supposedly mysterious, ascetic, spiritual bent of so-called Eastern cultures. Miller’s version, he argued, effectively lessened our students’ engagement in the thought of the Gita by conforming so neatly to common preconceptions.

(Part three available here.)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Interview with the Author: American Possessions, by Sean McCloud

Sean McCloud is the author of American Possessions: Fighting Demons in Contemporary United States

What is the main argument in this book?

First, thank you for inviting me to speak with you, I really appreciate it. The focus of American Possessions is Third Wave Evangelicalism, a movement focused on fighting the demons that practitioners see pestering and inhabiting human bodies, material objects, places, and regions of cities and countries.  In brief, I argue that this movement and its practice of spiritual warfare exhibits several prominent themes that characterize contemporary U.S. cultures. Specifically, consumerist, haunted, and therapeutic discourses saturate contemporary American religions and converge in Third Wave Evangelicalism. In addition, I examine how the movement’s theologies and practices reflect and contest contemporary neoliberal discourses concerning agency, social structure, history, and conceptions of individuals. In other words, I think that an examination of Third Wave spiritual warfare reveals a lot about American religions and cultures in the twenty-first century.

What motivated your work?

I was originally working on another book project when I kept having happenstance encounters with people whose ideas and practices tapped into Third Wave spiritual warfare. I found the subject fascinating, but even more I found that it seemed to touch in many ways on a number of issues prescient to the study of contemporary American religions. I ended up dropping the other book project into a file and focusing on the research and writing that became American Possessions.

What theory or theorists inform your methodology?

I found a number of writers good to think with. These include Eva Illouz on therapeutic language; Jean Comaroff, Birgit Meyer, and Matthew Wood on neoliberal consumer capitalism and religion; and Avery Gordon on haunting. And--even though he is cited just once in the book--the work of Pierre Bourdieu haunts nearly every page.  At base, the approach I take in this and all of my work is what might be considered materialist social theory. By this I mean that I am interested in how social structures, histories, and material conditions shape our consciousnesses, bodies, and practices by fomenting comfort/discomfort and making certain ideas and actions appear more natural and commonsense than others.

How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

Several people told me that they have already used the book in a class since it came out in May, but I am not sure how they used it. I could imagine it being assigned in courses on contemporary American religions, the supernatural in American culture, religion and capitalism, and theories and methods courses.

How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

This is a tough question because I am not a fan of self-promotion and these sorts of queries can lead to that, infused as they often can be with passively phrased boasting about the usefulness, importance, and lasting significance of one’s work. Don’t get me wrong—I think I’ve written a pretty good book. But I am growing weary of academics promoting themselves and their scholarship in ways that seem propelled by the very neoliberal consumer capitalist discourses that this book discusses. I guess I will leave it by saying that I hope the work conjures up some of the ways that those things we call religion, popular culture, and economy are historically and materially intertwined. And, perhaps even more, I hope it reveals how practices, ideas, and conceptions of self are not separate from, but rather dependent upon, the social structures within which they reside.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dilemmas of a 'Global' Core: Reading the Bhagavad-Gita with First-Year Students (part 1 of 3)

by Nathan Rein

Most of us in Religious Studies are accustomed to teaching with texts in translation. And most of us, accordingly, know that translations -- especially translations of major primary texts -- can differ from one another in significant ways. Even so, I sometimes find myself surprised at just how significant those differences can be. Recently, discussions at my institution over the use of the Bhagavad-Gita in our required first-year seminar provided a glimpse of both the pedagogical implications and the ideological dimensions of choosing a translation for a course.
Compare the following two translations of teaching VII, verse 25 of the Bhagavad-Gita:
 A. Veiled in the magic of my discipline, I elude most men; this deluded world is not aware that I am unborn and immutable. (tr. Barbara Stoler Miller, p. 76)
B. But I do not shine for all, wrapped as I am in the creative power of yoga. The confused world does not perceive me, as I am – unborn, and imperishable (tr. Laurie Patton, pp. 90f.)
In this line, the speaker -- Krishna -- is providing his disciple with an explanation for the fact that most people fail to comprehend Krishna’s own true, divine nature. The explanation is that Krishna continually projects an illusory, phenomenal, ever-changing procession of images (maya) into the world, which most mistake for reality. Only a devotee can receive and recognize, in his or her own consciousness, the real manifestation of Krishna as unchanging and undying. The first quotation, from Miller, has a poetic resonance marked by the echoing words “elude” and “delude.” With the terms “magic” and “discipline” it evokes an atmosphere of mystery and esotericism.  The second, from Patton, coalesces around the words “shine,” “wrap,” and “yoga,” yielding a more convoluted, conceptually and metaphorically difficult structure.
I begin with these two quotations because I think their differences exemplify a dilemma we face when teaching core texts, namely, the choice between making the strange familiar (version A, by Miller) and, with apologies for butchering T.S. Eliot, making the strange even stranger (Patton's version B). While we face this dilemma with many, or even all, of the texts we teach, it is intensified in the context of what I’m calling a “global” core. Those scare quotes are intentional, since the jury is still out on whether spending three weeks in a semester reading ancient Indian and Chinese texts in translation really does much to heighten our students’ awareness of the wider, non-Western world.
At my institution, all students spend their first semester taking a liberal studies seminar that examines twelve texts over fourteen weeks. Three of those weeks are devoted to the Bhagavad-Gita and to selections from Mencius (one and a half weeks each); the rest, to a greater or lesser degree, are recognizably Western, going from Plato all the way to Descartes. I say the the dilemma is heightened in the case of “global” texts because I think instructors inevitably find themselves, intentionally or not, presenting these texts to students – and students end up absorbing them – as if they represented the “non-Western world” in some broad, totalizing sense. Thus the Gita, the text I’m interested in here, is pressed into double duty: on the one hand, as a self-contained text and in its own right, it offers students a complex narrative full of challenging philosophical and religious claims, while on the other, it is supposed to provide a salutary and enlightening excursion into the bewildering but rewarding landscape of global, i.e. non-Western, cultures. In our classrooms, we end up repeatedly choosing between trying to ease our students into some, perhaps minimal, level of comprehension of the Gita, on the one hand, and making them sit with and confront their incomprehension and bewilderment on the other. By extension, the same could be said about other texts that serve (however unjustifiably) as proxies for foreign or exotic cultures, and indeed, about any text at all that speaks to us across a great historical or cultural distance. (As an aside, I want to underscore that I’m not arguing that the Gita, by virtue of being from India, is in and of itself necessarily more challenging, or more “different,” or more exotic and strange than, say, Aeschylus or St. Augustine; I think, however, that we – our students and ourselves – often burden these texts with associations of foreignness and strangeness as a result of their place in the curriculum.) This is, to an extent, a pedagogical choice between comfort and discomfort, and it is one that we make in our classrooms daily. Perfectly skilled teachers, I imagine – if they exist – can maintain a level of student comfort that lets them feel safe enough to engage, explore, and take intellectual risks, while administering just enough shock and discomfort to stave off complacency and stasis.

(Part two available here.)